Las Vegas : An Oasis

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There isn’t, at first glance, much history in Las Vegas. What happened in the past has no value in the “City without Clocks”; what matters is the bet on the table and the dice in your hand. The present is king here.

But history does exist in Las Vegas, and once found, it helps explain a lot about this strange town in the middle of the desert. Visited by Pueblo Indians as early as 300 B.C. , Las Vegas was discovered by whites in 1829, when a trading party led by a New Mexican named Antonio Armijo thought to shorten its trip along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles by traveling north of the Colorado River. Nearly running out of water in the vast desert that stretches from what is now northwestern Arizona up into Death Valley and the Valley of Fire, Armijo dispatched a young Mexican scout named Raphael Rivera to search for an oasis; he returned thirteen days later with news of a verdant spring covered with the rolling green fields the Spanish call las vegas . Meadows there were, and plenty of water too; the traders refreshed themselves and reached Los Angeles less than three weeks later.

You can guess at the relief Armijo’s men must have felt if you drive south from Las Vegas along U.S. 95 to the tiny town of Searchlight, get out of your car, and walk into the desert. Saguaro, the tall cactus of Western films and Charles Addams cartoons, is omnipresent, along with sagebrush and paloverde, an odd, nearly supernatural tree that looks as if it had died and been spray-painted lime green. The heat, even in fall, is relentless. It was ninety-five when I left town at 10:00 A.M. ; by noon the mercury easily topped one hundred. Be careful of desert residents who might be sunning themselves on nearby rocks—speckled rattlesnakes, collared lizards, and the like—but continue to walk around. In the distance Mount Potosi and Muddy Peak rise like a giant gray moonscape into the brilliant and almost impossibly large sky. Breathe deeply to feel the saliva in your mouth evaporate like a handful of water on a hot skillet.

It is important to perform this act of self-immolation if you’re interested in understanding the history of Las Vegas. For only in coming to Las Vegas from the cruel desert can you see that it is truly an oasis. The soil is richer and the landscape greener than anything in the surrounding area. Despite the garish neon of the hotels and the pseudo-adobe of the apartment complexes that house their employees, visitors can see the historical importance of the town: there is water here.

Soon after Armijo’s arrival in Los Angeles, other Western explorers took note of Las Vegas. In 1855 a missionary party sent by Brigham Young came to the springs. Young, whose Mormon Church claimed much of the land west of the Colorado River for the state of Deseret, saw Las Vegas as a perfect stopping point along the Mormon corridor from San Bernardino to Salt Lake City. There were few Indians, there was plenty of water, and it lay between the two cities. The settlers arrived in Las Vegas a month after they left Salt Lake City and immediately set to building a large adobe fort to protect and house themselves. Part of this fort—the oldest building in the state—remains, but going to see it is more depressing than visiting any nineteenthcentury frontier building should be. Off Washington Avenue, in the lee of the giant parking lots of Cashman Field Center (which the city built in 1983 to house a minor-league baseball field and convention hall), a dilapidated chain-link fence and a dirt road lead up a light grade to what a small sign indicates is the Mormon’s Monument. All that’s there is a sad-looking little rectangular adobe building with a rusty-hinged door. A hand-lettered sign asks for donations of a dollar.

For a more enlivening look at what old Las Vegas was like, go to the Clark County Heritage Museum, which lies off South Boulder Highway in nearby Henderson. This country museum has a number of fine exhibits about the history of the area, some old Union Pacific rolling stock, a few restored houses, and, inexplicably, a Sherman M-4 tank. Best of all is its ghost town, which contains relics of Las Vegas’s pioneer days. There is also a great deal of rusted-out farm equipment that appears out of place in the dusty, hot dryness of Henderson’s desert.

In fact, farming almost became an important part of Las Vegas’s history. The Mormons began working the fertile ground near the Las Vegas springs soon after they arrived. But the discovery of a seemingly profitable lead vein on Mount Potosi, thirty-five miles to the southwest, removed the possibility of the town’s ever becoming an agricultural settlement. Within two years of sending men to Las Vegas, Brigham Young had canceled the mission and moved his flock to the bleak foothills of Potosi. The lead ore there turned out to be virtually useless, but mining it gave the Mormons valuable experience that they put to use in the more successful mines of southern Utah.

The railroad came to Las Vegas in 1902, when, for fifty-five thousand dollars, the copper-rich railroad magnate Sen. William A. Clark bought the land surrounding the springs from the widow of a cattle rancher who had tried to settle there. Three years later the road was completed, and on April 15, 1905, the first excursion train—with Las Vegas’s first conventioneers, the Woodmen of the World, aboard—came to town on the new tracks. There wasn’t much there then, just some tent buildings railroad employees had built, but renewed interest in the mining of land claims south of town brought more settlers, and by 1911 Las Vegas had a population of fifteen hundred and was incorporated as a city.

The railroad depot at the head of Fremont Street was the hub of Las Vegas’s social and economic life until the late 1930s, and though it was torn down in 1940 to make room for the Union Plaza Hotel, some of the town’s first buildings are still standing nearby. There is the sullen Victory Hotel, built in 1910, crouching in the shadows of the ornate Golden Nugget on North Main Street; the railroad’s giant ice plant, erected in 1908; and one of the first plush casinos, built in 1931, now sheathed in neon as Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Gambling Hall. Hard by downtown, Las Vegas High School is worth the short walk to South Seventh Street. Its beautiful Art Deco facade, elaborately detailed with carvings of local flora and fauna, greets students as cheerfully as it did on opening day in 1931. Walking across the school grounds, between palm trees and over a lush carpet of grass, you feel very far from the giant casinos of Las Vegas’s Strip.

The casinos are Las Vegas’s lifeblood. Gambling—legal in most Western states during the nineteenth century—was outlawed in Nevada in 1915 as a result of progressive reforms back East, but most people in this sparsely settled state flouted the law openly. A decline in mining during the Great Depression led local leaders to reconsider the ban on gaming; in 1931 open gambling and easy divorce laws were legislated to increase revenue for the state. Since then Las Vegas has grown exponentially at the hands of casino owners and their dependable customers. First came workers from the Hoover Dam (a thirty-minute drive southeast of town and well worth a visit for its stunning view, its engineering, and its magnificent Art Deco design) and, later, tourists and dissatisfied spouses from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 to increase revenue for the state. Today the casinos are Las Vegas’s lifeblood.

Bugsy Siegel, the gangster and casino owner, is the developer we remember most. A Capone syndicate boss, Siegel came to Las Vegas in the late 1930s and saw a potential gold mine in the book operations that casinos used to take bets on horse races in Florida, New York, and California. Offering his syndicate’s race-reporting Continental Wire Service to the bookies at a lower price than any of the existing services, Siegel cornered the market. Then, in 1942, having eliminated the competition, Siegel abruptly raised the prices and demanded a profit share from each book. Without another source for race results, and frightened by Siegel’s connections to Capone, the casinos capitulated.

With the profits, Siegel started his own casino. The ambitious Flamingo Hotel was finished in 1946. Situated on a strip of land along the Los Angeles Highway and designed to be an elegant resort rather than a faux Western gambling hall, the Flamingo forever moved the focus of Las Vegas away from downtown. It also ensured the success of gambling as the town’s major industry. Freed from the confines of their Western heritage, European-style casinos and resorts flourished in the years after 1946. Siegel was shot in a gangland execution in 1947, but his legacy lives on in the gaudy formalism of casinos like Caesars Palace and the Sands.

On my final night in Las Vegas I stood on the roof of my hotel’s parking garage to watch the sun set over Mount Potosi. The soft breeze was dry and hot as an electric blanket while the desert—ruddy and magical to the north, gray and rock-strewn to the south—conspired to give me a sense of being safe in the last remaining city on earth. It must have seemed like that to Armijo, too, for he took strength enough from Las Vegas to finish his difficult journey successfully. I thought of him then, an explorer in the morning of our nation’s history, lounging on the grass by the trickling springs, watching the sunset from an oasis in the midst of a harsh and unforgiving desert.

—Samuel Sifton TO PLAN A TRIP